Labor's Trio of Old Youngsters

The pushing aside of former army officers Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Ephraim Sneh, Matan Vilnai, Danny Yatom and Amram Mitzna in favor of distinctly civilian candidates heralds a welcome process of civilianization, maturing and sobering up.

On the eve of the elections to the Knesset in 1981, the Labor Party's elections consultant, American David Sawyer, commissioned a poll to ascertain the support for or opposition to the party's various Knesset candidates. The result was surprising: First place in the poll went to a candidate who was low down on the party's list - Chaim Herzog. The legendary commentator of the Six-Day War was voted into first place after no one expressed opposition to him.

Years later, his son was voted into a surprising second place by the party's central committee, for a similar reason: He has no opponents either.

But when it comes to politics, people without opponents are lacking in a clear ideological backbone, and their positions are deliberately vague. When such a trait passes down from father to son in a party, it raises doubts as to the "promise" inherent, as the analysts say, in the party's young generation.

Indeed, it appears that the excitement generated by the selection of the three relatively young lawmakers - Isaac Herzog, Ophir Pines-Paz and Shalom Simhon - to the first places in Labor's ministerial ranking was exaggerated and premature. Not that it doesn't herald good news: The selection is an expression of the central committee's positive aversion to the leadership that in recent years dragged the party down to its current low point. There's also no ignoring the fact that the central committee blocked the militaristic wave that was about to wash over the principal left-wing party and place at its head ministers almost all of whom are former generals.

The pushing aside of former army officers Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Ephraim Sneh, Matan Vilnai, Danny Yatom and Amram Mitzna in favor of distinctly civilian candidates heralds a welcome process of civilianization, maturing and sobering up. The personal profiles of the three "youngsters" also include creditable points. They were very good parliamentarians: Simhon was a pretty good chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee; Herzog was a dedicated and diligent lawmaker who dealt with a fair number of specific matters - despite the fact that the shadow of his silence in the investigation into Ehud Barak's associations hangs over him; and Pines-Paz was his faction's most prominent mouthpiece and the champion legislator of the 15th Knesset.

But all this does not justify the wave of euphoria that has washed over the party and its supporters.

As is customary in the Labor Party, we are dealing with three old youngsters. Not one of them has ever expressed a really controversial point of view; not one has strayed from the accepted boundaries of consensus; and not one has put forward a revolutionary and daring idea. These are conformists, who toe the line laid down by their predecessors. What significance is there, as a result, to the fact that they are young? They look better on television? Their speech is somewhat more contemporary? That Pines-Paz was once chosen as the best-looking man in the Knesset and plays handball?

In a party so conservative, one could have expected more subversion, more wariness on the part of the young members, and a rejection of worn-out positions both on the political level and on the socioeconomic level. Moreover, it is difficult to pinpoint the overall worldview of the three. They are in favor of the disengagement. Good. But then what?

Herzog, at least, once determinedly tackled an incident of unwarranted killing by Israel Defense Forces soldiers; Pines-Paz once put in a request to travel to Ramallah; but the three are not identified with clear statements against violations of human rights, the IDF's combat morals in the territories or the targeted killings. Herzog even expressed support for the use of moderate physical pressure in the Shin Bet security service's interrogations.

Of the three, Pines-Paz was the clearest and most daring. He did not hesitate to harshly attack the prime minister and support the Geneva Initiative, even if he didn't sign it. Herzog stayed away from the issue entirely. Herzog, as adviser to party leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Barak, never once risked expressing personal support (much like Pines-Paz). They know that too clear a political identity is a recipe for suicide in their party. They remember what happened the party's former youngsters, the members of the so-called "group of eight," who colored themselves with a clear ideological hue. Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin, who presented a clear-cut worldview, dropped out of Labor, and their absence is still being felt today. Yuli Tamir and Mitzna, who are identified with clearer positions than those of the three "young ones," were not chosen as ministers.

Despite all this, the three must be given a chance. If Pines-Paz decides to be really young, he can initiate an important revolution at the Interior Ministry, following the disappointing performance of his predecessor, Avraham Poraz. He can finally put an end to the disgraceful attitude toward the non-Jewish population and begin, at least, to blaze the way for a secular agenda. Herzog, too, can surprise and and prove that a young housing minister is capable of freezing the settlement enterprise. No one before him has done it. Simhon will be required to exhibit courage in the fight for the environment against the tycoons.

This will be their last chance to prove that their youth is of significance. The big surprise will not be the fact of their selection, but their ability to change their ways and leave a real mark - something that not one of them has done before now.